Founding the Palazzo Vecchio in 1299: The Corso Donati Paradox

By Trachtenberg, Marvin | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Founding the Palazzo Vecchio in 1299: The Corso Donati Paradox


Trachtenberg, Marvin, Renaissance Quarterly


The usual origin-story of the Palazzo Vecchio as a security measure for the city's executives taken in response to civic unrest does not hold up under a close analysis of the historical record and the architectural evidence. The original project of 1299, as distinguished from the building as modified 1306-1310, was not heavily fortified; and by contemporary standards the late 1290s was a comparatively peaceful interval. It is proposed that rather than fear, the immediate motivation for the decision to build was a crisis in civic honor. If so, the palace would have been initially an expression less of the core values of the mercantile class, officially at the helm of the republic, than of the excluded nobility, as represented by the arch-enemy of the regime, Corso Donati.

Everyone familiar with Florentine history is probably aware of the connection between the great town-hall of the Republic (fig. 1) and a long list of important political figures. Among them are the Duke of Athens, who in 1342-1343 tried to make the Palazzo Vecchio into a veritable citadel; Cosimo il Vecchio, who was briefly imprisoned there before the coup of 1434, thereafter virtually its de facto master; and Cosimo I, who openly appropriated the building to his rule. In general the association of the monument and those who desired its physical and representational power is amply related in historical narratives. [1] In the case of one such figure, however, the full story has not been told. Virtually every text relating or even touching on the early history of the building, from Dino Compagni's chronicle to Nicolai Rubinstein's recent monograph, mentions the attack on the still incomplete palace by Corso Donati and his followers in 1304 ("And armed on horseback he came into the piazza, and fiercely attacked the Palazzo dei Signori with crossbow and fire"), a detail intended to illustrate the "Dantesque" civic violence of the period that gave birth to the palace. [2] But never is it mentioned that when the palace was founded five years previously in 1298/99, the Florentine political scene was under the sway of the same implacable enemy of the guild republic, Corso Donati himself, leader of the Black Guelf faction. This singular, seemingly paradoxical fact becomes even more puzzling when seen against the well-known but poorly explained series of delays, spread over more than a decade, in the founding of the palace. Why, I would like to know, did the delays end at the very moment when Florentine politics came so strongly under the influence of the Donateschi? Was this synchronicity a mere coincidence, or was there more to it? In other words, might the founding of the palace in 1298/99 have had something positive to do with Corso Donati and the forces he represented? Seven centuries after the event I take the opportunity to ask if it is possible that the arch-enemy of the guild republic should be considered the founder of its most important civic monument?

A CIVIC BUILDING FOR PEACEFUL TIMES

One of the recurring themes in the literature on the palace is that it was created primarily for the safety of the recently formed democratic government of the priori, whose previous headquarters had been merely rented or converted ordinary private houses. [3] This notion, that the founding of the palace amounted essentially to a security measure for the regime, owes largely to two misconceptions. One concerns the reading of the monument, the other the interpretation of the political climate during the years of its founding.

From the beginning the building has been called a "palace" (first "Palazzo dei Priori" or "del Popolo," later "Palazzo Ducale," only becoming "Palazzo Vecchio" after Cosimo I transferred his residence to the Pitti). This designation however, is rendered problematic by the external form of the structure. With its huge, menacing tower, watchbox, and multiple tiers of battlements (replete with arrow loops and machicolations concentrated over entrances), the building is fiercely defensive in look and capability, and it could as easily -- perhaps more easily -- be called a fortress.

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